Time of the signs: Of black people and nature

2013-02-10 10:00

When the National Press Club made its announcement for Newsmaker of the Year 2012, black people seemingly lost out to animals yet again on the list of white people’s concerns. It should have been Marikana.

Of course, I expressed my condemnation. But not because I hold the opinion, “Screw rhinos, save blacks”.

In fact, the slaughter of rhinos and the killing of miners are part of the same machine. It should have been a tie, actually – and I don’t say that flippantly. There is a link between these tragedies.

We live in a world where power and wealth are in the hands of a few people who reap massive rewards from both human and animal resources. Some creatures are more likely to die cheap, grizzly deaths than others.

The bodies of black miners – dispensable and replaceable – and the bodies of butchered rhinos – disposable and consumable. But our political discussion seems to want to force us to choose one as more morally outrageous than the other.

The reason we feel we must make this choice is because in many African nations, we see a large population of impoverished and marginalised people juxtaposed against a lucrative wildlife sector, whose benefits mostly seem to be felt by a privileged handful.

Why should those who continue to be excluded in their ancestral land put their struggles for survival aside to worry about “things of white people?”

It’s mostly white people who own wild animals and the land where all these romantic safaris happen and where the rhinos are being poached. And it’s black people who work these farms, many living in deplorable conditions.

They cannot afford to enjoy the natural splendour of Africa being marketed and sold to tourists. I mean, why does one even need to afford the privilege of access to nature in the land of one’s ancestors? Given these contradictions, I see why black people may want to ask: Why should we care?

But does concern about ecological degradation mean you cannot also care about the lives of black people? I put it to you that black people cannot claim to care about struggles for survival if we cannot be bothered about nature. Where will our food, water and medicine come from? Pick n Pay?

As a sangoma, I cannot imagine completing my initiation outside of natural forests and living rivers. I am not sure we can even speak of ubungoma (the practice of a sangoma) without a full and healthy nature. Concrete does not breathe, paper money is not a natural seed.

We seem to have forgotten that African cultural and social consciousness is based on the idea of oneness with nature. Many of us no longer commune authentically with nature and the link to the land has been broken in our minds.

But our rootedness in nature is still evident in our languages and names. Surnames like Ndlovu, Mokoena, Manzi and Mhlaba. Names like Sechaba, Nomvula and Nomvelo.

Of course, precolonial Africans altered their environment by hunting and cutting trees. But every action of receiving from nature was governed by strict rites and rules, and was based on need, not profit or whim.

The killing of certain wild animals was as taboo as murdering a human because wildlife was honoured as family. In Shona, they (animals) are called mutupo: family totems or guardians. The killing of a wild animal was followed by appeasement ceremonies to restore balance. This to show remorse.

We have fallen into the trap of a false dichotomy of black people versus nature. Globally, indigenous ecological knowledge is dying. The forests are disappearing. The insatiable appetite of the modern world is destroying nature for the sake of short-term profit.

And while I understand the imperative for black people’s full political and economic freedom, let usremember that this land that we soidentify with has only sustained us because of the balance of all that lives and grows on it.

»?Mkhize is a practising sangoma.

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